#28 On Freedom

When I was younger I heard three stories, each in two parts. Perhaps you’ve heard them too. Its likely. Or at least versions of them in your own words. Perhaps you’ve heard about times before, when things were harmonious. About catastrophes that scarred everything and everyone. Perhaps in your midst there are witnesses to attest to the truth of these tales. Or others steadfastly committed to original words.

It was from the latter that I heard the first story. Set in a time before anyone whose ever lived can remember. About two ancestral beings who were naked and vulnerable but without knowing, so they weren't afraid. They lived in perfect harmony. And then something catastrophic happened. An evil entered and brought with it knowledge of a kind that tore everything apart. Even now upon those who’ve not forgotten what their ancestors came to know, scars remain.

The first part of the second story concerns a group. At one time slaves to a tyrannical ruler of an empire so vast as to make escape all but impossible. The lives of the slaves were difficult; yet they survived and multiplied. In their midst was a single determined voice with the power to set everyone free. Which it did.

The first part of the third story is more recent. Though fewer in number with each passing year, still among us are people who witnessed the events. Its also about a group, who for reasons unfathomable to naive conceptions of human nature, were systematically herded and exterminated by an evil that possessed an entire nation. 

As with the first two stories, the third is unforgettable. And many years later, in annual rituals of retelling, the descendants of those affected recall with bittersweet joy that their ancestors were set free by the power of belief in a transcendent voice, and the possibility of freedom. Each year they reaffirm their commitment to continued existence in spite of forces still intent on their enslavement. For all too aware are the not so naive that we remain capable of terrible cruelty; that without awareness we remain unafraid; and that without fear we remain deaf to the knocks of evil at our doors.

Maybe you’ve heard these stories. Or similar ones. About ruined childhoods, natural worlds destroyed by unnatural forces. Stories about you. Maybe you’ve seen first hand or met those who can attest. I once met a woman who inhaled longing, and when she exhaled decried the indelible marks left by her past between her ribs. I learned from her that memory is a complicated means of producing something other than facts. Stories mainly. At least in part. Often inter-generational.

These days we store the past at the tips of our fingers; we reminisce in high definition. But still, even as storage in the cloud replaces stories of before, we retain a lament for the catastrophe of prolonged exposure to the slings and arrows of time in the sun, or the moments that change everything forever. We continue to be reminded that no matter our admiration for advances in meteorology, the weather is unpredictable. And we resolve to relish moments and savour fleeting joys. We consider it wise to be grateful for what we have.

That’s as far as the first parts of stories can take us. Then come the second parts. And to be sure, without them, we would drown in unpredictable weather. The second parts are more terrifying than the first parts, more difficult too. And the reason for that is the second parts of our stories demand that we move on. That we shoulder the burden of past catastrophes as if they were matters of our individual responsibility. Perhaps more than any other, the reason the second parts are so terrifying, is that we write them ourselves.

When I was younger I was fortunate to be surrounded by people who expected me, having heard the stories of my ancestors, to write a good story of my own. The details were not important, but some general rules applied. My story should start small. And aim high. It should include others, but only with constructive intentions. At its core should be family, surrounded by community, supported by society to which is owed service, and from which nothing should be assumed given. All of the characters should strive to do good by one another, particularly in times of need. And as for my own character, he should lead the way; respect the past; be true to his word; aware of his capacity for error; guided by a transcendent voice; and sustained by unwavering belief in the possibility of his freedom.

Bicycle outside my shelter in the Desert (2019).

Bicycle outside my shelter in the Desert (2019).

#27 [Instructions] On therapeutic relationships in education

Last week I defined the role of educators. Demonstrate understanding; provide instruction in its means; encourage its pursuit. Of the three, the second, provision of instruction, comes most naturally. Most teachers give generously of their time, spirit and knowledge. Its the backbone of the vocation. We’re a giving bunch.

So, how best to give? That’s the question.

The story goes that a man without food was close to a river. Another man approached and offered to catch him a fish. The first man was grateful and gladly accepted. With a full belly, that night he slipped into a deep sleep. He dreamed he was on a building site, surrounded by trucks loaded with bricks. There was a cement mixer and beside it a pile of yellow sand. The man was enthused. It had been years since his last employ and he longed to work again with his hands. So he looked for a shovel with which to load the mixer. But he couldn’t find one. The doors to the trucks were locked and without a knife, he was unable even to unload the bricks, which were bound with plastic straps. The man scratched his head. He woke up hungry, and his dream left him unsatisfied.

Its nothing new to say of fishing that men and women should be taught the skill rather than gifted the catch. Nor to apply that same principle to education. At least in theory, students are assessed on what they can do themselves. Teachers prepare them to demonstrate by means of assessment what knowledge they’ve acquired in the course of instruction, and provide critical feedback to identify areas in need of improvement.

But things are more complicated on the ground, in particular with regard to factors external to the teacher-student relationship, which affect the capacity of each to play their part. On the tragic end of the spectrum of externalities is what’s called complex trauma. A tangled milieu of symptoms from prolonged exposure to abhorrent behaviour in the early stages of childhood development. Students affected find regulating their emotions exceedingly difficult. Their nervous systems are continually haunted by unresolved encounters with threats to their safety and stability. They struggle to focus and socialise, often they act out. In school terms they require Special Education. In real terms they require something beyond the mere provision of instruction.

One way of thinking about what that something is, is therapy. The treatment of disorder and dysfunction sought by or for the disordered and dysfunctional. in simple terms, therapy is the process of reordering. Putting things together; organisation for functional expression. In poetic terms therapy is the way home. Over the years common threads in stories of recovery have been woven by various professionals into formalised approaches. All of them recognise a paradox in the common goal; that every one is different, and yet there are commonalities in patterns of individual development. 

So the teacher faces a challenge. How to differentiate their approach to cater for the varied needs of individuals who to differing degrees are affected by externalities that threaten to disorganise their capacity to pay attention to content on which one day they will be examined. Oomph.

The story goes that long ago, in a time before anyone who’s ever lived can remember, a time best understood as a dream, the sun and the moon made a seed. The seed lay on the ground, and was watered by the clouds. Soon it sprouted two small leaves, attached to a stem. The sun and the moon watched the small plant grow towards the sky, until one day, big enough to know, the plant opened its eyes, looked around and immediately became terrified by the height to which it had grown. “Oh no!” Cried the plant, “I’ve so far to fall!”

Hearing distress the wind arrived to offer some help. “What’s the matter?” Asked the wind. Just then a bird flew by, catching the attention of the terrified plant.
“Oh wind, I cannot possibly live this way. If only I were a bird! I’d have no need to be afraid.”
“Very well,” said the wind, and transformed the plant into a small bird.
The bird was thrilled, fascinated by its newfound perspective. It flew to new places far from home. In one such place the bird found a forest of enormous trees and landed on one of their branches.
“Oh my!” Said the bird. “How scared this tree must be!”
In reply came the voice of the tree, slow and deep. “Dear bird,” it said, “how old do you think I am?”
“Um—“ said the bird, “maybe three?”
“Ha!” Laughed the tree. “I am one hundred years old!”
“Wow!” Said the bird.
“But that’s not all,” the tree continued, “I am a tree. And trees are three hundred million years old! For three hundred million years we’ve been learning to stand tall.”
The bird was stunned. Suddenly a strong gust of wind blew through the forest. The tree swayed, and the bird fluttered from the branch, then landed again.
“Wind!” Called the bird.
“Yes?”
“I need your help again. I want to be a tree! They’ve been learning to stand tall for three hundred million years!”

What does it mean to demonstrate understanding? To be an old tree surrounded by frightened birds of nervous flutter. In that question, suspended between pillars of knowing, are stories about setting examples. When I first started working with children I thought it was their example that I should follow. The wide-eyed way they went about their games and activities, the freedom with which they expressed how they were really feeling. But as I’ve grown so I’ve leaned that wide-eyed wonder comes in different forms. And there are times to join in the fun, and times to stand back and concentrate on standing tall. 

The word that I think most aptly describes the relationship between the tree and the bird, between teacher and student, therapist and client, between those who give and the whole world; is forgiveness. And to forgive is to withhold. The prefix for- is an injunction on the root word give. To forgive is to give not. Which is different from not caring. Anyone in a position to forgive is likely to care. And perhaps only a caring person can forgive. Perhaps only a person for whom it doesn’t come naturally can create an empty space between themselves and their students, into which the latter might grow. And all the while demonstrate a capacity to remain standing, by caring for themselves. 

An unknown bird in Alice Springs.

An unknown bird in Alice Springs.

Letters Home #14 'House of Tallulah (Part 2)'

Listen here or on iTunes or Stitcher.

Tallulah sat in half lotus on a cherry red moroccan pouf in a modest room at the back of the cafe. Odd stools and chairs, covered with candles, crowded the walls. There was a window to her left, a bookshelf to her right, behind her a large wooden chest and beside her a small glass table. Her pouf was in one hemisphere of a round mat, woven with threads of dyed pandanus, in earthy tones of green and orange. I sat in the mat’s other hemisphere - also on a pouf. 
"So, what are you looking for?” 
Her eyes were soft but offered no place to hide. They followed mine to the bookshelf, where I’d turned for time and inspiration. I read a few spines. Sacred Geometry and the Body, 24 Recipes for Grounding, Love Matters.
I paused, lost in a moment of contemplation. She noticed.
“Are you looking for love?” she asked.
“Um,” I replied, remembering something. “Actually I’m looking for the sound of my own voice.”
“I see,” she said. So, you’re not looking for love?”
“Well —” I paused and gave it some thought. “I mean I’m not not looking for love."
“When was the last time you had it?”
“Love?” I said casually, as if surprised.
“Yes,” she said, “When looking for something, it helps to know the last place you had it. Like a clue.”
“Um.” I hadn't prepared to think about love. Suddenly my stomach dropped and filled with dizzy butterflies. They were slightly nauseous. I winced and moved my hands to hold them.
“Something the matter?” Tallulah asked.
“There’s a pain in my stomach,” I said. The nausea crept to my back and shoulders then into my cheeks. Tallulah didn’t seem concerned. She paused and said softly, “Stay with it.”
I must have looked confused because she offered an explanation, “Sometimes,” she said, “when the voice is hidden, the body does the talking. Listen. What’s it saying?”
“Its saying its in pain.” I said through tight eyes.
“What kind of pain?”
“Like a puncture,” I said, “like my stomach's been punched and a sickness is oozing from the wound.”
“Mm,” Tallulah fell silent. Meanwhile the ooze dribbled into my hips. I tightened my grip and winced again.
“Its like I’m sick,” I said.
“What do you mean by ‘sick’?” she asked.
“I mean something isn’t right, like an illness. Or a disease.”
“A disease,” she echoed.
“Yeah, like I’ve caught something in my stomach. Its making me sick. Ruining my life.”
“Ruining your life?” She asked. 
I was a little surprised by my admission but took it as permission to confess. “Yes. It makes doing things hard. I can’t be totally happy or friendly when there’s this feeling making me want to do nothing but curl into a ball and go to sleep and not wake up till its gone.”
“It makes you want to curl into a ball?”
“Yeah.” I looked at my stomach.
“Would you like to try?” she asked.
“Try what?” 
“Curling into a ball.”
“Now?”
“Well from what you’re saying it sounds like there’s a pain in your stomach thats ruining your life and it wants you to curl into a ball. I wonder what would happen if you did what it wants.”
“Um.”
Tallulah smiled, “Only if you want to,” she said.
“Okay.” I agreed.
She unfolded her legs slowly, stood up and moved her stool outside the mat. She opened the chest behind her and pulled out a white crocheted blanket. “If you like,” she said, "I’ll put this blanket over you when you’re in a ball. If you feel as though you need to speak, that’s okay. If not, that’s okay too.”
“Okay,” I stood, awkwardly. I moved my stool and lowered to my knees. She seemed assured and that was encouraging. I lay on my side and wrapped my arms around my legs. The pain in my stomach pressed against my thighs. It turned over and oozed up my sternum, behind my tongue. “Ready,” I said.
Tallulah moved towards me and draped the blanket over my body so that I was completely cocooned. “I’m going to light some candles,” she said.
“Okay.” 
The lights went out. I could hear Tallulah lighting candles. Eventually she stopped and one of the stools creaked under her weight. I closed my eyes. The pain was most acute a few inches above my bellybutton. It sucked at my skin and spread out towards my sides. Then it rolled over and tugged at my jaw. It tucked itself behind my bellybutton, rising and falling with my every breath. Suddenly it sharpened and my stomach gurgled. An image flashed into the speckled blackness behind my eyes. It was a crying baby, covered in purple and white blotches, with clenched eyes. Its umbilical chord was intact and flailing. The baby was floating in a room, faintly red, but no one was holding it. No mother or father. Only a few shadows moving about in preparation. The baby was silent. Its eyes clenched tight.
“I see a baby,” I said.
“A baby?” she echoed.
“A newborn. Its afraid — its frozen with fear. Its eyes are clenched tight.”
“What does it need?”
“Um,” I started to shake. Tears welled in my eyes. They were clenched. 
“What does it need?” she repeated.
“Love,” I cried. “It needs love.”
Tallulah was silent. So was I. I sat up and put the blanket to one side. Her eyes were soft, but offered no place to hide. “I’m looking for love,” I said to her eyes. They blinked and smiled.

(not) the end.

Letters Home #13 'House of Tallulah (Part 1)'

Listen here or on iTunes or Stitcher.

House of Tallulah is a cafe in Alice Springs. Two streets from the main drag. Two streets from foot traffic in a town of thirty thousand, it relies entirely on patronage by people who know where it is and what they’re looking for. Most are looking for the same thing. Along with the usual caffeinated beverages and baked artisanal treats, House of Tallulah is the only cafe in Alice Springs, possibly the only cafe in the northern territory of this great southern land, that also serves directions

I’d arrived in Alice a few days earlier. Fourteen hours by bus from Arnhem. I was hungry for professionally prepared food and thirsty for a varied blend of civil refreshments. My friend Reuben picked me up. He's a cowboy - but he doesn’t ride horses. He plays chess. Which isn’t to say he lacks any of the rugged qualities for which cowboys are known. Reuben combines practical knowledge of the task at hand with an eye for craftsmanship, sense for adventure, stylish garb and a cracking wit. We grew up either side of the same leafy street in suburban Perth. Reuben introduced me to Bob Dylan, Simon and Garfunkel, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. Fifteen years later he sent me to visit House of Tallulah. “Ask for directions,” he said.

The cafe operates from a powder blue weatherboard bungalow set back thirty paces from the street. Framed portraits clad the bungalow in Christian iconography and idilic scenes from turn of the century rural dreams. A concrete footpath leads to a single front door. To the right of the path is a tall whitewood. To the left is a patch of verdant lawn large enough for two cars. The eight alfresco settings are composed of odd vintage chairs and makeshift coffee tables. Cutlery stands in salvaged tins of diced tomatoes next to short stacks of recycled paper napkins. Everything, the portraits and weatherboards, the lawn and tree, the handfuls of creamy white blossoms cast across the path by gusts of spring wind, everything is stonewashed in desert glare.

House of Tallulah is a cafe in Alice Springs.

House of Tallulah is a cafe in Alice Springs.

I walked inside, into a long rectangular room with a bench down one side. On the bench was a coffee machine and cash register. Also a glass cake stand full of blueberry muffins and ready-to-toast breakfast sandwiches. A doorframe at the back of the room led to a stainless steel kitchen and at the back of that another doorframe with a beaded curtain. Behind the bench stood three women. On the right was Liza, five-five and forty something with curly black hair, full eyebrows and leathery skin made soft by beauty cream. She wore an assortment of chains around her neck and a red silk singlet. From one of the chains hung a kookaburra’s tail feather. Her wrists were stacked with bangles and beaded bracelets and she wore a single pendant earring, a three dimensional plastic moon. On the left was Charlie, cropped grey hair and a four inch mohawk. She wore a silver ring on her right thumb and her square frame was dressed in ripped Levi’s and a tight grey t-shirt printed in bold texan typeface with the words ’NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN’.

Between Liza and Charlie, taller by a whole two feet, stood Tallulah. Everything about her was exaggerated. Her saucer-sized eyes were wide set and filled to the brim with coffee brown. She had high cheek bones and ears like conch shells. They poked through shards of maple hair that fell beside her neck and grazed her clavicles. The neckline of her camel blouse stretched shoulder to shoulder and sat low enough to reveal the creases in her underarms and a few curly maple hairs. It was embroidered with small candlesticks in threads of red and purple. They spread over her bust and cascaded to her midriff where her blouse was cut short and showed the olive skin of her belly. An oversized ruby pendant dangled from her bellybutton. Beneath that was a forest green chiffon skirt and a pair of cradled hands. Her wrists were tattooed with black and grey bands ranging from one to four centimetres. They ran all the way to the middle of her upper arms. Each a patterned mix of cross-hatch, swirls and strange letters in alien script. She wore pendant earrings, one of which was a three dimensional plastic moon. The other was a birthday candle. 

“What can we get you?” said Liza, with a smoker’s voice, rasped by inflammation at the back of her throat. I blinked - lost for words. Liza cocked her head. The thick mascara around her eyes crumpled with hints of scepticism. I turned to Tallulah. She was smiling impossibly wide, when she blinked back I swear I heard her lids collide. “Um,” was all I could manage. 
“Coffee?” asked Tellulah. Her voice was high pitched and playfully sarcastic.
I blinked again.
“Food?” she toyed with me. A chortle fled through Charlie’s nose. I shook my head. “Hmm,” she paused for effect, “How about directions?”
“Um,” I mumbled. The game was finished. Tellulah glanced at a clock on the wall behind my head. It had a porcelain face and black enamel roman numerals pointed to by plastic candlesticks. Ten o’clock.
“Perfect,” she said and stepped back, moving towards the end of the room and out from behind the bench so that she stood facing me. I looked at her bare feet. Each finger-length toe wore a gold band set with a different coloured crystal. I stared long enough to consider the shape and colour of each one. Tallulah watched me. She lifted her toes and gave them a wiggle then set them again on the floor. I looked at her face. I though she was about to laugh. But instead she blinked and said, “Come on, sweetheart.” Then she turned and disappeared into the kitchen.

I started after her but was cut short by a tap on my shoulder. It was Charlie. “Works best if we get this out of the way,” she said, calmly handing me a laminated piece of A5 recycled paper. At the top, in bold purple print was handwritten the word ‘Directions’. Under that, in the middle of the page, was written ‘$120’.
“Um,” I managed.
“No pressure,” said Charlie.
“Um,” I felt in my bag for my wallet and pulled it out. Charlie was holding a wireless EFTPOS machine.
“Cheque, savings or credit?”
“Uh, cheque, thanks.”
I typed my four-digit PIN and pressed ‘Okay’. Transaction approved. I walked in.

(not) the end.

Notes

All of the characters and events in this story are fictional.

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